Any (and every) fan of The Allman Brothers Band should own The Fox Box. This set of CDs from 9/24/04-9/26/04 is essential listening for any devotee of this band or, in fact, of Southern rock in general because these live recordings represent the absolute pinnacle of playing by the final lineup of this seminal blues-rock band.
And, since the title’s been in only erratic circulation for years since its first release, it’s worth the effort on the part of the band and the producers of the package to make the music more readily available, even though there are only marginal improvements in its repackaged and remastered form.
To be fair, it’d take monumental enhancements to match or transcend the absolutely brilliant musicianship contained on these eight discs (condensed from the original nine). When The Allman Brothers Band recorded these performances from a three-night residency at Atlanta’s Fox Theater, the final configuration of the band had hit its stride during that spring’s run at the Beacon in New York, then continued at that high level during their summer tour.
Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Warren Haynes, after his extended stint within Phil Lesh and Friends (known as ‘The Q’), continued to revel in a wide-open approach to improvisation and, in so doing, reaffirmed his longstanding chemistry with Derek Trucks. At the same time, the latter had solidified his position in the ABB while he continued the roadwork with his own group that helped maintain his own freewheeling approach to live performance. It’s no surprise there were so many renditions of songs old (“Southbound”) and new (“Desdemona,” “High Cost of Low Living”) over ten minutes duration.
In fact, the open-ended approach to playing also extended into the expansion of the Allmans’ repertoire. Within a span of fifty-four songs on The Fox Box, creative rearrangements of songs from 1973’s Brothers and Sisters, “Wasted Words” and “Come and Go Blues,” appear right alongside “Rockin’ Horse” and “Instrumental Illness,” from the previous year’s studio release Hittin’ the Note (the first such ABB project for a decade). Such culls were juxtaposed with a selection of outside material of a piece with the septet’s southern heritage as well as their own history: Dr, John’s “I Walk On Gilded Splinters” receives a heavily syncopated treatment, while “Layla” is homage to the contributions made to Eric Clapton’s masterwork by the Allman Brothers’ founder Duane.
The trademark slide playing which graces that tune is the scintillating likes of which Derek brought to the group that, combined with Warren’s own vocal and instrumental work (not to mention his songwriting and overall stewardship), reinvigorated the whole ensemble. And that includes its namesake Gregg, whose own singing invariably evinced honest, deep feeling, whether in the self-referential cover of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or the atmospheric likes of his own “Dreams” (the first song he brought to the group roughly thirty-five years before this residency at the Fox).
The guest sit-ins that occurred all too often in later years of ABB appearances are a mixed bag here, but former Brother Jack Pearson’s guitar helps render the latter tune explosive, while Rob Barraco’s light touch on the piano is an effective contrast to the otherwise blistering take on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed; ” the latter runs over forty minutes with a percussion spotlight that Jaimoe, Butch Trucks and Marc Quinones might’ve halved in duration (but still retained bassist Oteil Burbridge’s tuneful solo).
Bill Levenson’s supervision of this project may well have been key to bringing it to fruition, but the man who oversaw the all-encompassing Allman Brothers’ Dreams collection, as well as multiple comparably sterling reissues of other artists, may not have had sufficient input to substantively re-imagine The Fox Box. While the audio quality is a bit more crisp with its remastering, the breadth and depth of the mix isn’t appreciably improved from the initial issue of the ‘Instant Live’ CD’s the group was selling at the time of the shows. There is no question, this is the sound of Allman Brothers at its best, in concert circa the 2000’s, but the slightly enhanced sonics here (notwithstanding the intrusive sounds of the audience) would appear to derive strictly from advances of technology in the interim since the first release.
Likewise, the packaging of this modified set is unfortunately a mere a variation on the previous. design. The thin-cardboard outer enclosure matches the budget-caliber artwork, which, though it’s more colorful, would definitely benefit from more prominent positioning of the action photos taken by one-time Allmans’ tour manager Kirk West; as vibrant in their own way as the music, his kinetic images might well have graced that outside cover as well as the individual digi-paks and perhaps even taken the place of John Lynskey’s essays: little more than rundowns of each night’s setlists, his writing is virtually bereft of illuminating perspective(s).
As demonstrated by the reissued version of Live At Great Woods and the March 26 2009 at the Beacon DVD’s, The Allman Brothers Band hasn’t always done a stellar job with their archiving in recent years. While this ‘new’ version of The Fox Box may be representative of such misconceived efforts, at least up to a point, it is nevertheless an absolutely indispensable entry into this great band’s catalog based on the virtually uninterruptedly brilliant musicianship it contains.